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Doesn’t she look like Odette Swann?

August 31, 2011 15 comments

When I was in Paris I visited the Musée Carnavalet. In the room full of paintings of La Belle Epoque, not far from the reconstitution of Marcel Proust’s room, (See Amateur Reader’s excellent post on this here) I noticed a painting by Louise Abbéma and I thought : “It’s Odette!”

The weight of consequences

August 30, 2011 16 comments

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.

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(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

Please, draw me a sheep!

August 28, 2011 14 comments

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

Le mal du siècle Part III: The 20th Century.

August 25, 2011 38 comments

Les Choses (1965) by Georges Perec (1936-1982). 140 pages.

 I decided to read Les Choses (For English-speaking readers, Things: A Story of the Sixties, translated by David Bellos) to try a book by Georges Perec, a French writer who seems more praised abroad than in his own country. So I was curious. In French we say “La curiosité est un vilain défaut” (Curiosity is a flaw) and I have to say it’s true this time. What a boring reading! Ironically, the most interesting part of the book was the transcription of a lecture Perec gave in the Warwick University on May 5th 1967 about literature.

The good thing about Les Choses is that I can say anything I want about the book. Nothing could be a spoiler and ruin someone else’s pleasure as I can’t imagine someone reading it for the plot. I also hurried to write the review in fear that I’d forget at Mach speed everything I read. I interrupted my reading and couldn’t remember the names of the characters when I started again. And there are only TWO character names in the book with very French names, not foreign names impossible to plant in memory. Very bad sign.

Les Choses is the story of Sylvie and Jérôme. They are so linked to each other in the book, forming a global entity that I’m tempted to write Sylvie&Jérôme or Jérôme&Sylvie. They have no individuality. You know, in a couple, you tend to always tell the names in the same order. If you know Sylvie and her husband is Jérôme, you’ll call them Sylvie and Jérôme and it will be the other way round if you knew Jérôme first. The second name just disappears in case of a break-up or a divorce. Here it’s indifferent. They are exchangeable, not one has a leading temper. You don’t prefer one to the other or feel close to them.

So our characters Sylvie and Jérôme are a young couple. We can guess they were born in the late 1930s as they are students in Paris in 1957. (So I deducted from the text). They’re not really devoted to their studies and abandon them. They live on filling marketing enquiries for different advertisement agencies. They go everywhere in France to interview consumers. They don’t want to have a regular job with fixed schedule. They want to live free from any constraint and yet want to be rich. As their mothers were hairdresser and small employee, there is no old money in their families. They’d want to be “rentiers”. They spend time dreaming about all the things they’d like to have and walking on the streets, looking in shops and drooling over fancy clothes, nice furniture.  

They have friends who have the same expectations. They want to have money to buy things. Lots of things. Lists of things (that’s where the BORING starts). Things bringing a bourgeois comfort. Things like Madame L’Express advertises in L’Express, the newly founded newsmagazine. Things they imagine people with inherited wealth have. But they never start to work to make money because they don’t want to work in a fixed frame, with a boss and working hours. They have no intellectual life, they become vaguely interested in politics during the war in Algeria. They’re interested in nothing except things, ie consuming. But all the things they want are above their means. They’re pathetic. Their consuming isn’t joyful, it’s sad and it’s the basis of their couple. So when they have money, it’s fine, when they don’t, they fight. For me it’s rather ugly and I didn’t like them. They’re empty and are like things themselves. 

A few things puzzled me in this book. First, they’re not married in a time where social pressure was still important. Sylvie never gets pregnant, although the pill wasn’t available at this time — The law will be voted in 1967. Second, people coming from the working class and studying at La Sorbonne were usually excellent students pushed forward by teachers. Those were usually hard-working students, most unlikely to abandon their chance to a diploma and a better life.  

By the way, why did I choose that post title? I read Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset last year. I just read René by Chateaubriand. I think these three books have a common point: their hero is bored by life, empty and ill-at-ease in their century. René is the product of the decaying Ancien Régime. When he’s in his twenties, the old institutions are dying and not encouraging ambition. Octave (In Musset) is the product of the beginning of the 19th C in France. He’s in his twenties after decades of important engagement in politics (the French Revolution, the Empire). Contrary to the former generation, he has nothing to fight for. He’s also desperate and throws himself in a life of pleasure. Sylvie and Jérôme are in their twenties in the 1950s and come after WWII, a time when French people had to choose a side and when some of them choose to fight. Sylvie and Jérôme are the other side of the youth, the one that doesn’t follow Sartre and Camus but wants to take advantage of the new consumer society. Except that they don’t have the money for it. I suspect it is partly autobiographical as, like Jérôme and Sylvie, Perec spent a year in Sfax, Tunisia where his wife Petra worked as a teacher (like Sylvie)  

Though I was terribly bored by the book, I think Perec captured a turning point of our society and was very insightful. He describes very well the silent shift from politics and militantism to a more passive youth. Sylvie and Jérôme are ahead of their time. Even their names are ahead of their times. People born in the 1940s are named Gérard, Jean-Marie, André, Gilbert, Michel or Monique, Chantal, Evelyne, Christiane. There will be Sylvies (after Sylvie Vartan) and Jérômes in the 1970s. He caught the powerful undercurrent and though political engagement will be still strong in the 1960s and 1970s, his characters announce the apolitical generation born in the 1970s.  By the way, I was as bored as the characters, which can be considered as a literary achievement too.

In his lecture, Perec talks about the Nouveau Roman and the new current in French literature at that time. Les Choses was written before he joined the Oulipo movement and in reaction to the literature engagée promoted by Sartre and Camus. He says he doesn’t want to write a book which is an excuse to push forward political or philosophical ideas. He failed. Twice. First, he failed because his book is boring whereas Camus or Sartre isn’t, so the alternative he proposes to their literature isn’t convincing. Second, he failed because his book IS full of ideas and also decrypting the society he lives in. Perhaps it was not his acknowledged goal but that’s what I saw 45 years later.

If anyone has read it, please, leave a comment, I’m terribly interested in someone else’s opinion.

 

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

August 22, 2011 12 comments

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. 1952. Translated into French as Le démon dans ma peau.

Hello Reader and Cyber visitor whose Google spaceship landed here by mistake,

This post starts with a quiz to be efficient and prevent you from losing your time – Isn’t time a precious thing in our century? Someday Time Bonds will be sold on the commodity stock markets like these rights to pollute. But I’m digressing.

Question 1: Do you know Jim Thompson? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to His Futile Preoccupation and read about Thompson there.

If you read this, that means you know Jim Thompson or you don’t want to take my advice, well, it’s your choice. Question 2: Have you read The Killer Inside Me? If no, stop wasting your time here and go to this review.

Still there? Either you’re a) really stubborn; b) brand new to the Internet and you don’t know how to click on links; c) a reader who knows The Killer Inside Me AND wants to know what I thought about it. (pretty low probability) In any case, welcome on board for a chilling journey in Lou’s head, the most psycho of all the characters I’ve met in crime fiction so far. Here’s our man self-analysing:

Plenty of pretty smart psychiatrists have been fooled by guys like me, and you can’t really fault ’em for it. There’s just not much they can put their hands on, know what I mean?

We might have the disease, the condition; or we might just be cold-blooded and smart as hell; or we might be innocent of what we’re supposed to have done. We might be any of those three things, because the symptoms we show would fit any one of the three.

Lou Ford, 29, is Deputy Sheriff in Central City, Texas, the kind of place where everybody knows everything about everybody and where you’re still a stranger even if you’ve been living there for twenty years. The novel was published in 1952 and the action is set in that year too. From the first chapter, you know that Lou is a weird guy, especially when he burns a bum with a cigarette butt for nothing, just on the impulse of the moment. He enjoys hurting that bum and I was already ill-at-ease. In French, I would have said “Lou est un drôle de loulou.”

Lou is the son of the now-deceased doctor of the town. He had a brother, Mike, who spent years in prison for assaulting a little girl. When he went out of prison, he became a building inspector and died in a strange accident on his work place. Chester Conway, the rich man of the town who’s in every business and also in construction, had interest that Mike kept his nose out of his muddy business. Lou knows this and intends to use the information if needed.

Things start to get out of hand when Sheriff Maples sends Lou to have a little chat with Joyce Lakeland who recently settled in Central City and makes money out of prostitution. The aim is to make her leave the town as the local bourgeoisie doesn’t like the idea of a whore making business on their land. The encounter will trigger something in Lou’s mind (what he calls “the sickness”) and put his revenge into motion.

Lou Ford is a sick character. He sounds stupid but he’s manipulative and clever. He spices his speech with ridiculous clichés such as “The boy is father to the man” or “The man with the grin is the man who will win” or proverbs. He does it on purpose, to hide his intelligence. We reader, know exactly what he thinks, even if sometimes we’d rather not:

Hell you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.

Lou could be Nick’s older brother. (Nick is the main character of Pop. 1280, see my review here) The construction of the two novels is very similar but Pop 1280 turns into black comedy when The Killer Inside Me remains serious and chilling. You can’t help wondering how many Lous are on the loose in our streets. It is written in such a way that Lou talks directly to the reader and as Guy pointed out, The Killer Inside Me is both the killer inside Lou and Lou as a killer inside you, reader. It is so gripping that I bought it for a friend who’s a nurse in psychiatric hospital. She’s specialised in schizophrenia, I’m curious to have her opinion on this book.

In both books, Thompson destroys what make the essence of life in small towns: a state of corruption where the rich are like royalty and do what they want, the permanent gossips, the hypocrisy (Lou explains everybody knows who’s sleeping with whom but the rule is to turn your head to the other side). Of course, all these people are pretty religious in appearance and Lou explains “I picked up lots of good lines at prayer meetings” either giving a lesson to those people who forget on Sundays what they do the rest of the week or turning the speech of genuine believers into something dirty.

For Lou and for Nick, an encounter with a woman and dealings with prostitution will start their journey as cold-blooded killers.

Lou and Nick have many things in common. Their mothers died when they were born. Nick’s father used to beat him. Lou’s father didn’t beat him but knew he was unbalanced. Lou could have studied medicine too but that meant leaving to university and Lou’s father wanted to watch him out. He was afraid of what he was capable of if he left. That’s the sad part of the story. Lou’s intelligence is wasted. If he’s really sick, the absence of efficient treatment and of decent solution for him backfired into his killing spree. Who knows what would have happened with proper medicine and if his father had not cut his wings?

Thompson has a disquieting vision of humanity:

How do you know who I am, Johnnie? How can a man ever really know anything? We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it. That’s about the size of some of the arguments I’ve heard.

I’ve read many crime fiction books with more or less horrible murders. What makes this one special is the way you are in Lou’s mind. I can’t help wondering how Thompson’s mind worked for him to be able to create such characters and minutely describe their insanity. I can’t help wondering if he wasn’t a little bit sick too.

A visit to La Maison de Balzac in Paris

August 20, 2011 28 comments

Today I was on my own in Paris for one of those rare moments when I have no societal identity. I’m not a wife, a mother, a daughter, an employee… These stayed behind and let the woman be for once.

I decided to take a literary tour and start with La Maison de Balzac. It’s in the 16th Arrondissement, a wealthy and bourgeois district in the West of Paris. It’s a beautiful day, rather early in the morning, in a residential area in August: it’s deserted and quiet. When I exit the underground at the Métro Station La Muette, the view is typically Parisian with its Métro sign and its building in pale stones with black iron balconies. I walk a little from the Métro to the Maison de Balzac and on my way I come across a triangular building that is so typical from Paris I almost hear it shout “I’m Parisian” when I look at it.

 

 

 

 

Of course the area has much changed since Balzac’s times. The street names remind the wanderer that it was a village back then. For example, la Rue des Vignes indicates there was once a vineyard there. Perhaps the Rue Berton (picture) can help us imagine the old streets.  In Balzac’s street, you have now a stunning view on the Eiffel Tower. Balzac lived in this house from 1840 to 1847. (He died in 1850). It was the ex-Foly of a mansion located on the street. As it is build on a hill, the house where Balzac used to live is below. The mansion has been destroyed but the entrance remains.

 

The house is very modest and Balzac went underground there during seven years: he was bankrupt and he literally hid there from his creditors. The lease was in the name of his governess and the place had two exits to help him escape if needed. He lived there under the name of “M. de Breugnol” and Théophile Gautier was one of the rare persons to know his real address.  

This is where he reviewed La Comédie Humaine and wrote many masterpieces like La Cousine Bette, Splendeur et Misère des courtisanes or La Rabouilleuse. He wrote to Madame Hanska on February 2nd, 1845:“To work means to get up everynight at midnight, work until 8am, have a fifteen minutes breakfast, work again until 5pm, have diner, go to bed and start again on the morrow”. He worked 15 to 18 hours a day, drinking coffee to stay awake. His coffeepot is in the house.

The apartment is composed of five small rooms and today, they show to the public portraits and sculptures of Balzac, his friends and relatives. A room is dedicated to his long-term love with Madame Hanska. I suppose that many of the furniture and objects presented there were saved by Madame Hanska when Balzac died. They had been married for five months and she died in 1882. She was still living in their house and Balzac was already a master in literature.

 

One of the room is Balzac’s tiny office, I could only count six footsteps from one wall to the other. It’s really there that he used to work and his table and chair are under our eyes. It was really moving. It wasn’t just any table or any chair. He was attached to them and took them with him any time he moved in a new place. They’ve been with him all the time. The table is rather small and the edges bear the scars of his quill pen where he used to sharpen it impatiently or in the heat of the moment. He imagined most of La Comédie Humaine in that room. Would he have worked so intensely if he hadn’t been locked there? (1)

In another room are shown the ink pads of the characters from La Comédie Humaine.

The publishers inserted illustrations in their Balzac editions. Some dated back to the first edition by Furne but most of them dated back to the early 20th edition. This room also shows a genealogical tree of Balzacian characers. It’s so complex it’s almost impossible to understand. To think he had everything in his head is amazing.

After the visit, I spend some time in the garden. I sit on a bench in Balzac’s tiny garden to write this review on that pink notebook I carry with me all the time to write anywhere at any time. According to the letters he sent to Madame Hanska, Balzac loved flowers and he used to look at his garden through the window.

 

 

 

 

I wanted to capture the emotion of the moment. The visit was touching, I felt I was paying a tribute to this hard worker of literature. It’s not a cemetery but it was as solemn for me. His writing habits were unhealthy and perhaps led to his untimely death. We owe him that tribute. It was a lovely moment and I hoped I shared it with you.

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 (1) Same question for Proust and his illness that kept him in his room. Sachs says that at the end of his life Proust wasn’t even able to go to the cinema.

Literary walk in Paris for my book pals

August 18, 2011 23 comments

I’m currently in Paris and thanks to Caroline’s review, I have Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke. I really enjoy this charming literary guidebook and I noted down some places I wanted to visit.

So today, I’ve been walking in the 5th Arrondissement on the traces of many literary ghosts. I took pictures with my phone, so they’re far from excellent – plus I’m a lousy photographer – but I wanted to thank each of my regular commenter by a personal photo.

For Caroline who made me discover that guidebook and many other books  and who steadily reads everything I write, here is Hemingway’s building Place de la Contrescarpe.

For Guy who also manfully reads all my posts, this is the N°30 rue Tournefort where Mme Vauquer had her Pension.

and also a cinema I believe you’d love to visit:

Do you think this bookseller inspired Laurence Cossé for her Novel Bookstore?

Max, look at this Proustian bookstore where you might love to go when you retire and eventually have all the time you want to read:

Leroy,  this is where Joyce wrote Ulysses.

As you might not be happy with the plaque telling he was a “British writer from Irish origin”, does this street name make up for it?

Sarah, I’m sure you were interested in the place where Joyce wrote Ulysses but here is the Rue Mouffetard, the street in the children’s tales by Pierre Gripari, La Sorcière de la rue Mouffetard. Unfortunately, they haven’t been translated into English.

Amateur Reader, there is a plaque to indicate that Retif de la Bretonne died here:

Litlove and Caroline, I’ve been to 11 rue Tuiller, where Rilke wrote the letters he sent to Lou Andreas Salomé and that will turn into The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Malte lives there too.

Sorry Himadri, despite my thorough walk in the neighbourhood, I couldn’t find the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Cie.

Richard, Borges stayed rue des Beaux Arts but it’s in the 6th Arrondissement.

I’ve had a lot of fun doing this. If anyone has been forgotten, sorry, it wasn’t on purpose. Many thanks again to all for your messages as it is still difficult and sometimes terribly frustrating to write in English, so encouragements through thought-provoking comments are much appreciated.

Forever a servant: a female’s life isn’t worth living, she thinks

August 16, 2011 13 comments

The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) 189 pages.

Alexandros Papadiamantis is one of the greatest Greek writers of his time. His work is mostly composed of short-stories and a few novels, among those The Murderess. I came across this author when I researched books for my EU Book Tour. How happy I am to have started that whimsical project! I would have never found this book on my own and it’s a real gem.

The Murderess is set in a rural island in Greece, the ones you imagine when you think about that country: sparkling turquoise sea, white houses, chapels, sheep and steep paths in the mountains. Alexandros Papadiamantis excels at describing the landscape, the scent of wild flowers and herbs under the sun, the pure springs, the shepherds with their sheep.

The main protagonist is Khadoula, also named Francoyannou or Yannou. She’s around 60. When the novel begins, she’s staying up at nights at her daughter’s house to watch her newborn grand-daughter. The deliverance has been difficult, both mother and baby are weak. During her sleepless nights, she starts thinking about her life:

Et là, à force de réfléchir et de rappeler en son esprit son existence entière, elle découvrait qu’elle n’avait jamais fait que vivre dans la servitude.

Jeune fille, elle avait été la domestique de ses parents. Une fois mariée, elle était devenue l’esclave de son mari – et pourtant, par l’effet de son propre caractère et de la faiblesse de l’autre, elle était en même temps sa tutrice. Quand ses enfants étaient nés, elle s’était faite leur servante; et maintenant qu’ils avaient à leur tour des enfants, voici qu’elle se trouvait asservie à ses petits-enfants.

And then, thinking hard and calling back in her mind her whole existence, she discovered she has only lived in servitude.

As a young girl, she had been her parents’ maid. Once married, she had become her husband’s slave and however, due to her own character and the weakness of his, she had also been his tutor. When her children were born, she had become their maid. And now that they had children too, she was enslaved to her grand-children.

Francoyannou was raised by a mean mother and a weak father who gave her as a dowry the less valuable of all their assets. Their avarice or perhaps simply their lack of love and generosity settled their daughter in poverty and obliged her to work hard to earn a living and build a house. They also married her to a simpleton. Her husband was so stupid he couldn’t calculate the amount of his wages and she had to interfere either to make sure he got paid correspondingly to the work done or that he didn’t drink their money. On this island, all the valuable men emigrate and are like dead to their families. They don’t write, they don’t come back and they never send money. Francoyannou’s two older sons emigrated and thus are of no support. She had to work hard to earn the dowry she gave to her daughter Delcharo, the one who just had a baby. And “what for?”, she thinks when she sees her loud and incapable son-in-law. She knows she can’t afford the same dowry for her two other daughters; they’ll have to be spinsters.

Looking back on her life, she doubts her life was worth the effort. She comes to a simple conclusion: being a woman is a curse, having daughters is a malediction. She looks at her grand-daughter and thinks that if she died now, her parents would be freed from raising her and sacrificing for her dowry. If she died now, she wouldn’t have to go through that life of servitude, she’d be an angel in the Kingdom of God. If Francoyannou helped fate and smothered the baby, it would look like she choked to death. One thought leading to the other, Francoyannou becomes sure it is the best solution. She kills the baby. She feels empowered by her action. For the first time maybe, she leads her life instead of reacting and adjusting to events and other people. It’s exhilarating. Will this baby be her only victim?

Francoyannou is a complex character. She’s a respected member of her community for her capacities, her compassion and the help she provides to others. Indeed, Francoyannou knows all kinds of herbs and works as a midwife. She can provoke abortions and wishes she could find a sterility herb. She’s everywhere, compassionate, healing neighbours, helping with laundry, working all the time to make money and survive. She’s also very religious and superstitious. She’s certain that Jesus sent her signs, approving her lethal deeds. She’s not crazy, she’s practical. Her compassion makes her cross the line.

Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote a fantastic novel on the condition of the women of that time. They aren’t really considered as citizens and yet do all the job, running households, working very hard and helping each other. They are never thanked or respected for it. Papadiamantis denounces the side-effects of emigration. It is a catastrophe for this island as it empties the native land from the most valuable men. Only the lazy, the stupid and the drunkards remain, making bad husbands and fathers. Only the shepherds are pictured as nice men. I also wonder why these emigrants never came back or sent money. Usually emigrants send money back home, helping the local economy. It was the case for Italian emigrants in America or Algerians in France.

Papadiamantis also questions old customs and the yoke they put on families. Dowries are above their means and yet mandatory for your daughter to get married. It costs them everything and prevents them from enriching from one generation to the other. As a consequence, having too many daughters is a curse. I had never heard of such a custom in a European country at the beginning of the 20th C and not among poor people. For me the question of dowries was linked to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. I’ve heard of such customs in India though.

Papadiamantis also depicts very well the parallel economy driven by poverty. Women have no profession but do many small jobs to earn money or get paid in nature.

Despite her horrible actions, I could understand and pity Francoyannou. It’s so desperate. Of course, murder is condemnable but Papadiamantis shows very well the net of obligations that led her to this horrible conclusion: Girls are a burden for their families and will live as servants all their life. Girls’ lives aren’t worth living. Sad and chilling. I highly recommend it.

Here is another review by Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes.

Atala – René by François-René de Chateaubriand

August 14, 2011 26 comments

Atala / René by François-René de Chateaubriand.  (1768-1848). I read the edition reviewed by the author in 1805.

I read Atala and René as part of the Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge hosted by Sarah, category A book that paralyses one with dread. These two novellas belong to a wider literary project entitled The Natchez, but Chateaubriand eventually published them as stand-alone. In 1805, the aristocrat Chateaubriand is 37. He’s been through the French Revolution – his brother Jean-Baptiste has been guillotined, he has spent seven years of exile in Great-Britain and has visited the French colonies in America. Bonaparte has become Napoleon. Chateaubriand has experienced different states of wealth from rich to filthy poor. Now the novellas.  

Atala or how I discovered that Chateaubriand was in favour of kibbutz.

There are classics we know only by name, some whose plot we know even if we haven’t read them. I knew Atala by name but had no idea of the plot. According to its English edition, it can be considered as the first American novel although it has been written by a Frenchman. Indeed, it is set in the French colonies in America at the beginning of the 18th C. The old Sachem Chactas relates his tragic love story with Atala to his adopted son René. He was a prisoner from Atala’s tribe, she fell in love with him, set him free and eloped with him. That’s the pitch.

It’s full of Romantic descriptions about the fauna and flora of the country, a sort of Eden. According to the footnotes, Chateaubriand was inspired by his own trip and by the books of other travellers. I rather enjoyed the descriptions. The way Chateaubriand bent geography to meet his own narrative goals made me smile and I marvelled at the outdated spelling of the Mississippi River. (Meschacebé). All this is right in the same line as Paul & Virginie, a novel I found so corny that I couldn’t finish it. Atala isn’t corny though. The useful footnotes enlightened me about the political and literary references of the text. Chateaubriand admired Rousseau and was the heir of the Enlightenment. Philosophical concerns are mixed in the novel as he uses this form to promote ideas. I liked the tolerance and humanism filtering through the text. Yes Atala stems from Voltaire and Rousseau.

Atala is an Indian girl whose mother was a Christian who had had a relationship with a white man. She baptised her daughter and had her swear on her dying bed that she would become a nun. The vows pronounced by the daughter are supposed to save the mother’s soul. Atala’s promise gets in the way of her genuine love for Chactas. Chateaubriand clearly criticises Atala’s mother for her selfishness: she disposed of her daughter’s life for her own benefit. It’s treacherous as Atala isn’t free any more and it is in contradiction with Chateaubriand’s moderate vision of Christianism. Because Atala is also a promotion of Christianism. When Atala and Chactas reach the community ruled by Father Aubry, Chateaubriand describes his ideal Christian society as opposed to a society based on the “contrat social” by Rousseau.

“Je ne leur ai donné aucune loi ; je leur ai seulement enseigné à s’aimer, à prier Dieu et à espérer une meilleure vie : toutes les lois du monde sont là−dedans. Vous voyez au milieu du village une cabane plus grande que les autres : elle sert de chapelle dans la saison des pluies. On s’y assemble soir et matin pour louer le Seigneur, et quand je suis absent, c’est un vieillard qui fait la prière, car la vieillesse est, comme la maternité, une espèce de sacerdoce. Ensuite on va travailler dans les champs, et si les propriétés sont divisées, afin que chacun puisse apprendre l’économie sociale, les moissons sont déposées dans des greniers communs, pour maintenir la charité fraternelle. Quatre vieillards distribuent avec égalité le produit du labour. Ajoutez à cela des cérémonies religieuses, beaucoup de cantiques (…) vous aurez une idée, complète de ce royaume de Jésus−Christ. “

I didn’t impose any law; I only taught them how to love, pray God and hope for a better life. All the laws of the world are there. You see a bigger house in the centre of the village: it is used as a chapel during the rain season. We gather there on mornings and evenings to celebrate the Lord and when I’m away, an old man says the prayers. Indeed old age is, like maternity, a sort of calling. Then we work in the fields and if the estates are divided so that everyone can learn social economy, harvests are deposited in a common barns, to sustain brotherly charity. Four old men distribute equally the product of the fields. Add to this religious ceremonies, a lot of carols, (…) you shall have a full vision of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

I didn’t know Chateaubriand was in favour of the kibbutz. It’s a sort of utopia, incredibly naïve or should I say candid?. Only Pangloss is missing with his famous “Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”

The surprise was that I enjoyed his style much more than I thought I would. He manages to instil poetry in his sceneries:

La nuit était délicieuse. Le Génie des airs secouait sa chevelure bleue, embaumée de la senteur des pins, et l’on respirait la faible odeur d’ambre qu’exhalaient les crocodiles couchés sous les tamarins des fleuves. La lune brillait au milieu d’un azur sans tache, et sa lumière gris de perle descendait sur la cime indéterminée des forêts. Aucun bruit ne se faisait entendre, hors je ne sais quelle harmonie lointaine qui régnait dans la profondeur des bois : on eût dit que l’âme de la solitude soupirait dans toute l’étendue du désert.

It was a lovely night. The Génie of the air was shaking off his blue hair that smelled like pine trees. One could breathe in the light scent of amber coming off the crocodiles laying under the river tamarinds. The moon was shining amid an immaculate azure and her pearl-grey light was falling on the hazy canopy of the trees. No sound could be heard except for a kind of remote harmony that prevailed in the deep woods. One could think that the soul of solitude was sighing in the whole desert.

What a delightful description of an enchanting summer night! All senses are invited in. First, taste as in French, “délicieux” means “delightful” or “lovely” but also “delicious”. Second, the sense of smell with the odours of the trees and animals. Third, sight with the moonlight. And the absence of distinct sound addresses our ears. The whole human being is engulfed in a whirl of sensations.

After Atala, I thought I could read more of him and reading his memoirs now tempts me but I’ll have to wait at least until I have finished In Search of Lost Time. It’s a long-term project. But time for us to move on to …

René or how Chateaubriand missed the opportunity to invent tissues.

In René, the roles are changed. Chactas, the Indian who has been to the court of Louis XIV now listens to René, the white man who left France behind to live in the woods with Native Americans.

Ah René! Let’s say it right away, fortunately, it’s short. It met my expectations of moaning Romanticism. René has le mal du siècle. Not the same mal du siècle as Octave, the hero of Musset. He has le mal de son siècle, the 18th C, coming from growing under a declining political regime where nobility had no serious occupation. As a consequence, René has no profession and thus has too much time to think. He has the spleen, the blues, the vague à l’âme, whatever you call it. He’s alone and lonely. He’s tired of everything and bored. His only human bond is with his sister Amélie but she shies away from him until he writes such a depressing letter that she runs to him, fearing he might commit suicide. She starts living with him and the more he blooms by her side, the more she withers, until she leaves him to become a nun after telling him about her inappropriate feelings for him. Well, that was unexpected from that primp and proper Christian writer. Or so I thought. Now I start thinking he was more twisted than I imagined. And back to the nagging idea of discovering the Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe.

Of course, Chateaubriand complains. I expected a whining author, I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, my dear Chateaubriand, hearts vary. Fortunately they do. They move on, otherwise we couldn’t heal, recover from losses and keep on living for those who remain and count on us. He thinks the society is rotten. Life in nature is pure. Blah blah blah. I don’t like the myth of the Good Savage corrupted by civilisation in opposition to a innocent life in nature. I notice that those descriptions of nature never include volcano eruptions, hurricanes or tsunamis. It is only gentle Mother nature generously providing food and shelter to humans. How handy. The tyle is full of “O”, exclamation marks, cries and sighs. Get the tissue box, please.

So yes, René irritated me and I love the conclusion of René by Father Souël:

On n’est point, monsieur, un homme supérieur parce qu’on aperçoit le monde sous un jour odieux. On ne hait les hommes et la vie, que faute de voir assez loin. Étendez un peu plus votre regard, et vous serez bientôt convaincu que tous ces maux dont vous vous plaignez sont de purs néants.

One is not a superior man because they see the world in a hateful light. One only hates men and life because they look at them with distant eyes. Widen you look and you shall be soon convinced that all the troubles you complain about are sheer nothingness.

Hear that Michel Houellebecq? That’s exactly what I wanted to say at the end of The Elementary Particles.

The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolanyi

August 12, 2011 21 comments

Aranysárkány aka The Golden Kite by Dezsö Kosztolányi 1925. 363 pages.

 Foreword:This novel takes place in a Hungarian small town named Sàrszeg around 1900. It’s the same imaginary town as in Skylark, by the same writer. It is about a teacher, Antal Novak and his students, which means it talks a lot about school and the Hungarian school system. I read this novel in French and the translator converted the Hungarian realities with words corresponding to the French school system. Now, I’m writing a review and I don’t know which English words I should use. I could use the American school system, well-known to everyone thanks to their dominating role in the cinema industry. But I can’t. Talking about “high school”, “senior year” and “finals” also brings along images of prom nights and cheerleaders. It doesn’t suit at all the atmosphere of The Golden Kite. Plus, I don’t know if the school system was already like that in the US in 1900. What is described here is very close to the French school system and I don’t think it’s only the work of the translator. There are similarities in the exams, in the solemnity of high school and of old tradition. Therefore, I’ve decided to use the French words chosen by the translator. “Baccalauréat” or its shorthand “bac” is the final exam for “gymnase” (high school, French Swiss word). Like in the Hungarian system of The Golden Kite, this exam is a rite of passage and it’s composed of a written and an oral part. The “terminales” are the students in their last year of lycée, the ones who will take the bac at the end of the school year.

 Now, the review:

The Golden Kite was written in 1925 and although the title is mentioned on the English page of Wikipedia, I couldn’t find any book cover on Amazon or Book Depository. It doesn’t seem to be available in English as a stand-alone but it may be included in anthologies. If it hasn’t been translated into English or is out of print, than I feel so sorry for English speaking readers as they are going to miss a tremendous book. For francophone readers who would buy the French edition, don’t read the blurb as it gives away events that take place around page 200 in a book of 368 pages. (A very irritating habit, in my opinion)

The opening scene of The Golden Kite is a sprint race. Vili Liszner, a terminale, is an athletics lover.

Le coup de feu claqua.

Posté derrière le coureur au bout d’une ligne tracée à la chaux, un lycéen tenait dressé le canon du pistolet et fixait les petits nuages de fumée qui tardaient à se disperser dans le ciel matinal.

Dès l’apparition de la flamme, un deuxième garçon avait mis en route le chronomètre. Il n’avait pu toutefois s’empêcher de crier :

– Vas-y !

Vili courait déjà.

Le départ avait été impeccable. D’un bond de panthère, net et sans à-coups, il s’était levé au dessus du sol, et quelques secondes plus tard, il était déjà lancé à toute vitesse vers la ligne d’arrivée.

Dans ses yeux, les prés défilaient au galop. Ses souliers cloutés griffaient la piste. Sa tête, battue par des cheveux à la tzigane, était rejetée en arrière et son visage se tordait dans un effort grinçant. Le sol palpitait.

The gun went off.

Posted behind the racer at the end of a line traced with chalk, a lycéen hold up the barrel of the gun and stared at the little clouds of smoke that longed to vanish in the morning sky.

As soon as the flame showed up, a second boy had started the stopwatch. However he couldn’t help shouting:

– Go!

Vili was already running.

The start had been perfect. With a panther leap, clean and without a jolt, he had risen above the ground and within seconds, he had launched himself toward the arrival line.

In his eyes, the fields flashed at a gallop. His studded shoes were scratching the track. His head, blown by his tsigane hair, was thrown back and his face contorted in a wincing effort. The ground was quivering.

The scene is vivid; we can see it right before our eyes, like in a film. From this scene we can deduct that Vili is more an athlete than a student, that his parents are rather wealthy since he can afford a gun for departure and studded shoes. Vili’s nightmare is school and especially math and physics classes. He doubts he can pass his bac. It’s the first of May, a public holiday.

Antal Novàk is the math and physics master. He’s a widower and has a sixteen year old daughter, Hilda. Novàk loves his job. Teaching is a calling and he’s a humanist. He’s devoted to his school, spending hours in his lab to prepare classes, willing to help his students become men. He’s against corporal punishment, preferring discussion. He’s the kind of teacher who throws teas for his pupils and promotes modern teaching methods. He’s respected among his peers and admired by the bourgeois of Sàrszeg. But he’s not loved, he’s even ridiculed by his students and perhaps envied by his peers. His daughter Hilda is rather wild and unbalanced. She’s been dating Tibor Csajkàs for two years now, first openly and then, after her father’s interdiction, secretly. From the start we guess that dramatic events will take place, shattering Novàk’s orderly life and breaking his peace of mind.

I loved this book, it is as good as Skylark. and I have dozens of wonderful quotes. I tried to share some, the translations are mine, unfortunately. Kosztolányi managed to mix philosophical thoughts (What is it to be a good teacher? Isn’t life an absurd sum of misunderstandings? How do you become a man? Aren’t childhood and adolescence the best parts of life?) with the chronicle of everyday life in an Hungarian town of that time.

I was amazed by how contemporary it is. I thought about Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates and I, Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Vili reminded me of American athlete students, good in sport but with low grades. And Novàk was like their teachers who’d do anything to avoid giving them bad grades because of the fame they bring on their town or school. The class of terminales was like any class of that age nowadays. Here they are, gathering to study before the exam:

Ils parlaient de plus en plus des matières scolaires. La parole était monopolisée par Dezsö Ebeczky, le premier de la classe, qu’ils détestaient tous cordialement. Non pas parce qu’il travaillait bien. Après tout, on a le droit de bien travailler. Mais travailler aussi bien que lui, c’était quand même écœurant.

They spoke more and more about school classes. Dezsö Ebeczky, the best student in class was speaking all the time. They all heartily detested him, not because he was a good student. After all, one has the right to be the best student. But being as good as that was really disgusting.

Kosztolányi also unravels the unique relationship between student and teacher. I liked the passage where Kosztolányi explains that Novàk isn’t really human for his pupils. They can’t imagine he can get sick, has been a child or he has a home life. Even his clothes seem of different fabric as they are teacher clothes. And it’s true that teachers have a special aura, that they are stuck in their role and are hard to imagine as mothers, sons of anyone and spouse. The descriptions of the exams were accurate, the fear before the D-day, the parents’ expectations, the frantic cramming until the last minute. They organize cheating during the exams:

Fóris, qui surveillait, les mis sévèrement en garde à plusieurs reprises sur le sérieux danger que constituait la fraude, dite « pompage ». Ledit « pompage » n’en fut pas moins organisé. Gyuszi Olàh avait prévu de copier la réponse aux questions à l’aide d’un code ad hoc, en vingt-trois exemplaires d’un coup, pour que le savoir, comme il se doit en une époque démocratique telle que la nôtre, devînt le bien commun.

Fóris, who was invigilating warned them strongly against the serious danger that cheating represented. It was called « pompage ». The so-called « pompage » was nonetheless organized. Gyuszi Olàh had decided to copy the answers to the questions with an ad hoc code in twenty-three copies in a row, so that knowledge becomes a common good, as it is suitable in a democratic era such as ours.

The journalists write articles about the bac, to question its utility

Il fustigeait surtout “l’institution désuète et inhumaine” du bac, qui « avait déjà fait parmi les jeunes d’innombrables victimes »

He castigated the “old-fashioned and inhuman institution” of the bac that “had already innumerable casualties among the youth”

I don’t know how it is abroad, but in France, the bac is an institution. This exam was created under Napoleon and if its substance has changed, the form remains. The written part takes place the same day in the whole country and it starts with philosophy. Every year, journalist talk about it in headlines and wish good luck to the candidates. Every year, we hear the same kind of debate: “Is the bac still up-to-date?”, “Is it useful?”, “Shouldn’t it be done differently?”, “Is it still a rite of passage?”

There’s a beautiful chapter about what it meant to pass the bac at this time. Of course, we must not forget that only the upper classes went to lycée at that time. (And in France, also poor but brilliant students. Teachers considered it was their mission to detect brilliant minds and push them as far as possible.) The students become men: at the diploma ceremony, they receive their first cane, they are allowed to drink alcohol, smoke in public. They are treated as equals by the adults. It’s an important rite of passage.

As an aside, Kosztolányi has a real gift to describe nature and its soothing impact on the human soul.

Dans une ombre irritante, des peupliers trembles se dressaient, semblables aux colonnes d’une cathédrale, et leurs couronnes de feuillage bruissaient dans la brise telles les orgues d’une église. Des peupliers blancs cherchaient le ciel de leur branches en balais. Les chênes, sérieux, hochaient la tête, imitant le grondement ininterrompu des chutes d’eau. Ici les grands lycéens avaient presque l’air de petits enfants.

In an irritating shadow, some aspens rose like the columns of a cathedral and their crown of foliage rustled in the breeze like the organ of a church. White poplars looked for the sky with their broom-like branches. The oaks nodded seriously, mimicking the continuous rumbling of waterfalls. Here, the great lycéens almost looked like small children.

Or

Un silence de sieste s’étalait sur la ville muette.

A silence of afternoon nap was stretching over the mute city.

A last one for the end, one that made me think of Thomas Hardy:

La vie n’est faite que de méprises empilées les unes sur les autres.

Life is only made of piled up misunderstandings.

In conclusion: a must-read among my best reads of this year.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

August 9, 2011 25 comments

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke. I found a pdf version on line, translated by William Needham.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is not a Beach and Public Transport book. However, I read it noisy environments, on the beach, at the laundromat or with children playing around. From the first page, Rilke wrapped me in the silken bubble of his words and the bubbling of the outside world vanished in a quiet puff. Here are the opening lines:

 

September 11th, rue Toullier

Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in. I’ve been out. I’ve seen: hospitals. I saw a man reel and fall. People gathered round him, which spared me the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She pushed herself heavily along beside a high warm wall, sometimes touching it as if to make sure it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind the wall? I looked on my map: ‘Maison d’Accouchement’. Fine. They’ll deliver her child; they’re able to do that. Further on, in rue Saint-Jacques, a large-sized building with a cupola. The map gave: ‘Val de Grâce, hôpital militaire’. I didn’t actually need to know that, but it does no harm. The lane began to smell on all sides. It smelled, so far as I could make out, partly of iodoform, partly of the grease from the pommes frites, and partly of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a house strangely blinded by cataracts. It was nowhere on my map, but over the door and still quite legible were the words: ‘Asyle de nuit’. Next to the entrance were the prices. I read them. It wasn’t expensive there.

We are here, in Paris wandering in the city streets with Malte Laurids Brigge. He’s a Danish citizen who lives poorly in Paris. To conjure up his anguish, he wanders restlessly in the streets and writes endlessly in his cheap room. He calls back childhood memories. There is no linear construction here, the memories come at random, in small scenes, images from the past intertwined with tales from the city. He goes to the library, mostly to read poetry and to feel in communion with other readers.

I am sitting here reading a poet. There are a great number of people in the room but one doesn’t notice them. They’re inside the books. Sometimes they move about in the pages like people turning over in their sleep between two dreams.

Malte’s childhood memories are phantasmagorical. They are set in old and strange castles filled with bizarre relatives. His mother was probably a little unbalanced and his rememberance is full of ghostly appearances and eccentric diners. As a reader, I couldn’t know if it was due to the perception of a child whose imagination was wild or who built his own explanation of situations he couldn’t grasp or if the memories were blurred. The castles are daunting with many rooms and corridors and remains of the past. It reminded me the atmosphere of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes.

Malte suffers from over-sensitivity. He perceives more than the common man. Where we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste, each perception pigeon-holed in its own category, he can mix sensations. I thought he could taste sounds, smell landscapes and taste the air around him. (The smell of the flowers was an unintelligible medley like a lot of different voices all at the same time.) With his extra perception, he feels the traces of the past in Paris, the remains of the people who lived there and especially their suffering.

The existence of the horrible in every atom of air. You breathe it in without being able to see it, but it condenses inside you, becomes hard, assumes pointed geometrical forms among your organs; for all the torments and horrors that happened at places of execution, in torture chambers, madhouses, operating rooms, under the arches of bridges in late autumn: all this has a tenacious permanence which endures for its own self and depends, jealous of everything else that exists, on its own terrible reality.

I can understand that, it happens to me sometimes when I visit places full of history or just old buildings. Every time I go to the Musée Jacquemart André, I almost expect to see Marcel Proust step out of a room. I’m not sure I could visit a concentration camp without being overwhelmed by what happened there. I’d feel like the people who died there are still lingering in the buildings claiming not to be forgotten.

Malte is disquieted by many things. He fears death and fights against this particular fear by reading the tales of famous death or of the death of relatives.

This excellent hotel [the Hôtel-Dieu, a hospital in Paris] is very old. In the days of King Clovis people were already dying here in what few beds there were. Now there are 559 beds to die in. It’s natural mass-production. With such a high number as that a single death doesn’t get the same attention; however, that isn’t what matters. Quantity is what matters. Who today still cares whether or not a death has been well put together? Nobody. Even the rich who, after all, can afford to attend to the details of dying are starting to grow slipshod and apathetic; the desire to have a death all of one’s own is becoming more and more infrequent. Only a while and it’ll become as rare as a life of one’s own.

He thinks people don’t take their death seriously when it is in them, lying from the beginning, waiting for its time to come. He seeks loneliness, he refuses to take part in the affairs of the world. Objects seem aggressive to him from time to time when his imagination takes the power.

It struck me that Rilke (1875-1926), Proust (1871-1922) and Kakfa (1883-1924) were contemporaries. I found Proust in Rilke when he describes Malte’s anguish. This passage reminded me the first night of the Narrator in his hotel room in Balbec (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower)

This always took place in one of those chance rooms which deserted me immediately when things were going badly for me, as if they were afraid of being questioned and of being implicated my nasty affairs. There I sat and I probably looked so dreadful that there was nothing that had the courage to acknowledge me; never once did the candle, which I had obligingly lit, show it wanted anything to do with me. It shone as if it were in an empty room. My last hope every time was the window.

Malte’s thoughts about Time, tickling, rich and yet easily spent also brought me back to Proust. I enjoyed the story of Nicolaï Kousmitch, Malte’s former neighbour. Nicolaï once calculated how many seconds he would still live on a 50 years basis. The number was such that he felt really rich. But doing a weekly accounts of time expenses, he soon realises that time goes by very quickly, that he’s not sure to make the best of it. Nicolaï becomes acutely aware of the time passing by, sensing the seconds fading away in a cold draft and the Earth rotating. The notion of Time is very present in Proust too.

I found Proust in a specific passage when the young Malte is feverish. It reminded me of the Narrator’s constant illness, his need to rest in afternoons, his thoughts wandering. Malte also encounters sleepless nights, just like the Narrator. I’m currently reading Proust, so the images are fresh in my mind and this one also sounded very Proustian to me:

It must have been one of those early mornings that July brings—hours when things are rested and there’s something joyful and spontaneous happening everywhere. Millions of small irrepressible movements collect in the most convincing mosaic of Being; things leap and merge into one another and soar high in the sky, and their coolness makes the shadows distinct and gives the sun a light spiritual appearance. In the garden there is nothing that stands out from the rest, the effect is overall and you need to be in everything and to not miss any of it.

My memories of Kafka are more distant. But I couldn’t help thinking about him when I read about fears, frightening objects and of course the castles.

The three of them are really cerebral. Many things happen in their minds and they look into themselves to understand the mystery of life, to cope with their disquiet and their panic attacks. They have a rich inner world and it’s the source of their art. They differ on one point: religion. Rilke often refers to God, the love of God humans can feel. It’s absent in Proust – I don’t think he was religious and mysticism wasn’t appealing to him. I don’t remember it as being essential in Kafka.

I have to admit that The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was a bit out of my league. I felt like I only scratched its surface, without understanding its deep meaning. I didn’t fully understand the last 50 pages, I got lost. I’m not very good at abstract thinking when it doesn’t involve figures. I grasped something about love and that being loved was being imprisoned and loving someone was putting them in a prison too. But that’s it. There are also a lot of literary references. I caught some of them (Verlaine, Baudelaire, The Letters of a Portuguese Nun) but I missed the others. Who is Bettina? Brentano’s wife? I’m not well-read in German literature and it prevented me from diving further in Rilke’s thinking.

I’m glad I found an English translation online, I have dozens of quotes and I would have felt really frustrated not to give a glimpse of Rilke’s incredible style. I’m not a great reader of poetry but here, it’s everywhere, filling the text with wonderful images, adding an extra dimension to his thoughts. He managed to pass on some of his extra-vision, the gift artists have to look at reality with different eyes.

Marketing’s first golden rule: Perception is reality

August 7, 2011 15 comments

Syrup by Maxx Barry. 1999. French title: Soda & Cie

Marketing (or mktg, which is what you write when you’re taking lectures notes at two hundred words per minute) is the biggest industry in the world, and it’s invisible. It’s the planet’s largest religion, but the billions who worship it don’t know it. It’s vast, insidious and completely corrupt.

Marketing is like LA. It’s like a gorgeous, brainless model in LA. A gorgeous, brainless model on cocaine having sex drinking Perrier in LA. That’s the best way I know to describe it.

 Michael George Holloway a young marketing graduate from Iowa wants to get rich and famous. First actions to reach the goal: move in LA and market your name. That’s how he ends up sharing an apartment with Sneaky Pete in LA and change his name into Scat.

Scat wakes up with a great idea: a new cola named FUKK. He doesn’t know what to do with his great idea, so he shares about it with Sneaky Pete who happens to know the New Products Manager of Coke, 6. Sneaky Pete has him an appointment with 6, who loves the idea. The board of Coke wants to buy the trademark and just then, Scat realises he doesn’t have a pattern on the name. When he wants to register it, he learns that Sneaky Pete has done it before. From then on, he will team up with 6 and it will be a deathly business war with Sneaky Pete. I won’t tell more, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s pleasure.

Syrup is a perfect read for commuters unless you’re too self-conscious to laugh out loud in a train carriage. Because you will laugh. It’s made of short scenes of a page or half a page. Each chapter is illustrated with a bar code and there are soda bubbles between sub-chapters. Original. Upbeat. Refreshing. Marketing case studies are inserted in the text, to recall the reader where he is:

mktg case study #6: mktg cigarettes

For a product that kills its customers, this is pretty easy. For one thing, you only need to convince people to start buying. But the best part is that you get to defend the act of selling a product your customers can’t stop buying by claiming they have freedom of choice. Before each marketing campaign, practice the line: “It is not the policy of our company to dictate the lifestyle of our customers”

As a business school graduate, I’ve had my fair share of marketing classes even if I majored in business law. I remember those case studies – about cheese and champagne, yes, that’s French business schools… So Maxx Bary’s novel certainly rang a bell.

 Syrup is a satire of course but it points out real ways of working in nowadays companies. The SMT, the senior team management is a “dozen colleagues in pants and ties (no jackets, no women)” How true. In France they think about imposing quotas for women in boards to try to break the glass ceiling. He also talks about “dick-measuring contests” among the SMT, and I usually entertain my colleagues by pointing out the “concours de quéquette” when I see one. Really frequent. Ends up with decisions not made through a logical decision making process but through a perception of who won the dick-measuring contest. Passages about women in companies are rather accurate. Being a woman executive can be a pain when you get pregnant. As Scat points out, A pregnant woman has about as much chance of being given control of a top project as a drunk; they’re viewed as equally reliable. How true (bis) That’s the paradox. Companies want you most between 25 and 40, just when you have babies. But they’re also very happy to have new customers to consume their products. Who’s going to make them if we can’t get pregnant, uh?

All in all, I thought his description of companies’ politics exaggerated but with a real hint of truth.

 Scat’s choice of a name is a good one. Like scat in jazz, he’s always improvising in marketing. He’s the creative part of the team while 6 is the managing, strategy one. He’s always flabbergasted by how far the internal competition of a company can go. He’s naïve but not that bad at negotiating. He can’t really lie, he has no insight of political forces among the SMT or the manoeuvres Sneaky Pete puts into place to make them lose. There are no holds barred. 6 is the caricature of the steely woman executive who has built defensive walls to survive in her macho environment. She first declares she’s a lesbian to cut off men’s temptation to seduce her. She’s skilled in politics and organizing but has no creativity. She can’t survive without Scat and Scat can’t survive without her.

Like in Company, Syrup is an evidence of globalization. Company is the globalization of management methods. Syrup is the globalization of marketing methods. And just like Coke is an international symbol of marketing, McDonald’s is an international symbol of low quality job: It’s so great to know that after you’ve sucked me dry, you still think I can pick up a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. In France too, to end up at McDonald’s for a regular job – not as a student job – is seen as a failure. Globalization of methods, globalization of outcome.

I have to say I like the voice of this writer, I think he’s a decent guy – or does he market himself as such? We are from the same generation. He’s obviously a feminist, he has a non-sexist way of describing relationships, and his male characters are the opposite of the testosterone man obsessed by tits and bottoms. Have a look at his website and particularly at his blog entry entitled Dogs and Smurfs if you want to know more. Syrup is currently being filmed. Max Barry wrote posts about the first days of shooting and he sounded very much as enthralled as Scat when he first goes to Coke or visit film locations.

After the 2008 financial crisis, I’d moderate my opening quote. Yes, marketing has a huge power on our lives. It will make you prefer one brand of cereal over another. But let Finance guys unleash their creativity and you get creative accounting, window-dressing, junk bonds, hedge funds, Fannie Mae and a major financial crisis that shatters the entire planet when markets and bankers realise that in that world, Perception CANNOT BE reality.

Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce?

August 5, 2011 30 comments

Dubliners by James Joyce. 1914.

I’m well aware that my post title will raise eyebrows or bring frowns on faces. I’ll explain later. I’m not going to introduce Dubliners here, I don’t see the point of poorly rephrasing what is already written on Wikipedia. So check here if you need explanations. This is my first James Joyce, a writer I’ve never read because I thought he was daunting. After several recommendations from readers I finally decided to try Dubliners. What can I say? I was stupid not to have read it before. It’s beautifully written and of course Joyce is a great author. So thanks for the recommendation.

Dubliners is a vivid picture of Dublin before the independence. He caught me with Araby, Eveline, A Painful Case and particularly with The Dead. I loved his style (“Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance.”), his quick thoughts about humanity (“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money”), his descriptions of faces (“His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets.” Or “He wore a round hat of hard black felt. His face, shining with raindrops, had the appearance of damp yellow cheese save where two rosy spots indicated the cheekbones.”). I really enjoyed his wit and his gift at describing characters:

She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.

Sometimes I found French way of speaking with English words. “What age are you?” which is exactly what French pupils learning English would tend to say instead of How old are you? (Literal translation of the French Quel âge as-tu?) Same comment for “how goes it?” (Comment ça va?)

But he lost me sometimes.

He lost me in the language but that was predictable. So I asked for help and downloaded a French translation and went back and forth the original and the French. There were many expressions (“that emphatically takes the biscuit” or “He’s gone to the dogs.”) or sometimes acronyms (a.p. for appointment, g.p. for I don’t know what except that I don’t think they were drinking a doctor, so I assume, being in Dublin, that it was beer). The problem was that he lost the kindle’s dictionary too with words such as barmbracks or peloothered, which was less predictable. Hence the French translation. Then I got angry at the translator for unnecessary changes. Why does Maria from Clay became Ursule in French? And why a man of 66 became a man of 70? But all in all, it helped me with the original.

He lost me in Two Gallants, I never quite understood what the two guys wanted from the girl, even after reading it in French. Prostitution? Sorry for being slow…

He lost me in a sea of boredom in Grace. – Yes, holiday by the coast, can’t help sea metaphores – All that stuff about religion. Perhaps he wanted to show how boring religion was to him.

He totally lost me in Ivy Day in the Committee Room as it is rife with political issues. I knew about Parnell but my mind went blank when I read about all the details about politics, King Edward’s visit to Ireland and so on.

He lost me in the internal cracks and divisions about nationalism and independence, like here:

O, innocent Amy! I have found out that you write for The Daily Express. Now, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Why should I be ashamed of myself?” asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile. “Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.

I assumed the Daily Express was a pro-London paper and I guessed that West Briton is an insult. That’s the point: I guessed and I can’t tell if I guessed right.

He lost me in the streets and the public transports of Dublin, a city I’ve never visited although I’d love to. I felt I was missing something there, Joyce obviously loves his city and his people. I’m sure it’s pretty evocative for a native but I felt left aside from private jokes. And that’s the persisting feeling about it. Although I was blown away by The Dead, I felt I was intruding in a book written for Irish people about their lives, their customs, their history and their identity. I felt Joyce wanted to show them who they are, from childhood to old age and that they should stand for themselves.

Hence my post title.

But I’ll let Joyce have the last word with his observation of changes in the Irish society:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

For another review, read Sarah’s here.

Max’s review is available here

Book Club Les copines d’abord

August 3, 2011 16 comments

In France, book clubs and reading groups are mostly for retirees and actually, that’s what they want as members since they usually meet during working hours, preventing any younger participant to join them. Book blogging taught me that reading was not necessarily a solitary activity and I really enjoy sharing thoughts about a book I’ve just read.

In my flesh-and-blood life, I have two girl-friends who enjoy reading as much as I do. We’ve decided to be our own reading group. We have chosen 11 books, one per month from September 2011 to July 2012. We’ll meet to discuss the book of the month and I’ll post about it. We don’t know yet if our schedules will allow us to keep up with our program but we’re willing to try.

 

 

Here are the books we have chosen month by month.

Month

Writer

French Title

English Title

September F-S Fitzgerald L’étrange histoire de Benjamin Button The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
October Paola Calvetti L’amour commence à la lettre A P.O. Box Love. A Novel Of Letters. (To be published in January 2012)
November Romain Gary Gros Câlin Not translated into English, I think.
December Muriel Spark Les belles années de Mlle Brodie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
January Siri Hustvedt L’envoutement de Lily Dahl The Enchantment of Lily Dahl : A Novel
February Colette Le blé en herbe Not translated into English, I think
March Emile Zola La Curée The Kill
April Tracy Chevalier Prodigieuses créatures Remarkable Creatures
May Anne Cherian Une bonne épouse indienne A Good Indian Wife: a Novel
June Haruki Murakami La ballade de l’impossible Norwegian Wood
July Philip Roth Exit le fantôme Exit Ghost

 If you want to read (or re-read) some of the books along with us, it’ll be lovely. We’ll be happy to hear your thoughts.  The list will always be available in the widget BookClub and I’ll update a widget Les Copines d’abord Readalong with the current book and the post deadline. I’ll review The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on September 1st

PS: About the name “Les Copines d’abord”. French readers will recognise the feminine form of the famous song “Les copains d’abord” by Georges Brassens. For non-French readers, it’s a beautiful song about friendship, something important to me.

PPS : Despite the group’s name, it is not a female reading group and male readers are equally welcome.

Categories: Book Club Tags: ,

Broadening the field of struggle by Michel Houellebecq

August 1, 2011 15 comments

Extension du domaine de la lutte by Michel Houellebecq. English title: Whatever. 1994.

 Disclaimer : I had to translate the quotes myself, a daunting job as it isn’t easy.

Dans nos sociétés, le sexe représente bel et bien un second système de différenciation, tout à fait indépendant de l’argent ; et il se comporte comme un système de différenciation au moins aussi impitoyable. Les effets de ces deux systèmes sont d’ailleurs strictement équivalents. Tout comme le libéralisme économique sans frein, et pour des raisons analogues, le libéralisme sexuel produit des phénomènes de paupérisation absolue. Certains font l’amour tous les jours ; d’autres cinq ou six fois dans leur vie ou jamais. Certains font l’amour avec des dizaines de femmes, d’autres jamais. C’est ce qu’on appelle la « loi du marché ». Dans un système économique où le licenciement est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver sa place. Dans un système sexuel où l’adultère est prohibé, chacun réussit plus ou moins à trouver son compagnon de lit. En système économique libéral, certains accumulent des fortunes considérables ; d’autres croupissent dans le chômage et la misère. En système sexuel parfaitement libéral, certains ont une vie érotique variée et excitante ; d’autres sont réduits à la masturbation et à la solitude. Le libéralisme économique, c’est l’extension du domaine de la lutte, son extension à tous les âges de la vie, à toutes les classes de la société. Sur le plan économique, Raphaël Tisserand appartient au camp des vainqueurs ; sur le plan sexuel à celui des vaincus. Certains gagnent sur les deux tableaux, d’autres perdent sur les deux. Les entreprises se disputent certains jeunes diplômés ; les femmes se disputent certains jeunes hommes ; les hommes se disputent certaines jeunes femmes ; le trouble et l’agitation sont considérables. In our societies, sex represents a second system of differentiation, independent from money. It behaves as a system of differentiation at least as merciless as money. The impacts of these two systems are actually equivalent. Sexual liberalism creates a phenomenon of acute pauperization, just like wild liberalism does. Some make love everyday; some five or six times in their life or never. Some make love to dozens of women, some never do. It is called “market law”. In an economic system where lay-offs are prohibited, everyone more or less finds their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, everyone more or less manages to find a bed partner. In a liberal economic system, some build huge fortunes; some endure unemployment and misery. In a perfect liberal sex system, some have a varied and exciting erotic life; some are reduced to masturbation and loneliness. Economic liberalism is broadening the field of struggle, broadening it to all the stages of life and to all social classes. On an economical point of view, Raphael Tisserand belongs to the winners; on a sexual point of view, to the losers. Some are winners on the two criteria; some are losers on the two criteria. Companies fight for some young graduates; women fight for some young men; men fight for some young women; trouble and agitation are considerable.

 This is the underlying theory of Whatever aka Extension du domaine de la lute, Houellebecq’s debut novel. The French title means ‘broadening the field of struggle’ and it is explained in the previous quote.

It’s a first person narrative by a man of 31 whose name is never told. He is Our Hero. He’s a single Parisian programmer who works for an IT company that has just won a contract with the Ministère de l’Agriculture. Now Our Hero is sent in small towns in Province to implement the software and train the users at their new working environment.

Our Hero is single, depressed and hates the world he lives in. He’s not interested in his job; he has no girl-friend or interest in women; he has no real friends to go out with. He’s cut off from human relationships. In my opinion, the book has two different parts. I thought the first half rather funny and at this point, I think it necessary to talk about French humour. In Francewe talk about l’humour au premier degré and l’humour au second degré. Like for burns, it could be translated as first-degree humour and second-degree humour. The first corresponds to funny but basic gags. The second correspond to more subtle jokes. Add to the different degrees a tendency to nasty or black humour and you have a flavour of the best – in my opinion – humorists. The perfect example was Pierre Desproges. For me, the first part of Extension du domaine de la lutte is in the same line, like in this example:

En général, je déteste les dentistes; je les tiens pour des créatures foncièrement vénales dont le seul but dans la vie est d’arracher le plus de dents possible afin de s’acheter des Mercedes à toit ouvrant. Generally speaking, I hate dentists. I think they are essentially mercenary creatures whose only goal in life is to pull out as many teeth as possible to buy Mercedes cars with sunroofs.

He points out the absurdity of our society, its pointless struggles. It is full of caustic remarks intertwined with more or less serious sociologic analysis. I suspect Houellebecq mocks the intellectuals who take themselves too seriously. It’s provocative and I don’t think it really represents Houellebecq’s thoughts. It is meant to shock For sure, Houellebecq doesn’t know the concept of political correctness. And I have to say it’s refreshing. I’m far from agreeing with everything Our Hero says. It’s nasty, it’s absurd and it’s ridiculous. But god, it’s funny and sometimes spot on  

The second part is more serious as Our Hero’s depression deepens. I didn’t want to laugh anymore. He gasps for air, cries at work and feels empty. I watched him sink into despair, letting his life fall apart. I’ve never experienced depression myself but it felt real and well described. I can’t help thinking that Houellebecq put something of himself in Our Hero. After all, he was born at the same time and also worked as an IT programmer. He doesn’t sound like a joyful fellow. Our Hero isn’t a very nice man. He’s supposed to be an example to illustrate the theory summed up in the first quote. I can’t say that I don’t agree with his analysis. But it’s easy to criticize without proposing any alternative. Communist systems have proved to be an economical failure and who would want to go back to the 19thC when divorce didn’t exist? Not me. Yes we have more freedom and more freedom doesn’t mean automatically more happiness.

Houellebecq is a scientist and the two books I’ve read include scientific theories applied to everyday life and especially comparison between physics (elementary particles) and our information society. It’s partly beyond my reach so I can’t explain it and certainly not in English. Extension du domaine de la lutte was written in 1994 when Internet was barely emerging. He saw it coming though. That’s one of the reasons why I think he’s worth reading, he seems to have a clear vision of society’s trends. There’s good material in his books if you push aside his tendency to provoke and to take advantage of our capitalist world while criticizing it.  

About the style. I was disappointed by Houellebecq’s style in Les Particules Elémentaires especially because he’s so praised. But the topic was special and I thought maybe he had adapted his style for the occasion. Now I know he didn’t. It lacks something but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s too clinical, not personal enough. I can’t hear his literary voice. I’m not ready to read La Carte et le Territoire right now to find out if he improved. The good point is that I feel less guilty for my lousy translation of Houellebecq than I feel for other writers. Houellebecq’s style doesn’t convey much, even in French. It has no magic or poetry or play-on-words which are, in my opinion, the translator’s nightmare.

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